Southbank Centre

Lost Quotes

Who uses the Medusa’s eye? Have you heard a chorus of frogs? Do you know who Gentle Dobbin is? Perhaps you can help the Poetry Library track down these poems the public are looking for!

The Poetry Library (on floor 5 of Royal Festival Hall) frequently gets enquiries about lines of poetry which have been heard in passing or recalled from childhood, but whose origins are forgotten or unknown. The Assistant Librarians are the first port of call for these enquiries. They use all the resources at their disposal, including the Library’s collection and online catalogue, as well as poetry databases, Google searches and, frequently, their own memories, as the majority of individual poems are not available in digital format, and so cannot be easily located.

Assistant Librarian Lorraine Mariner remembers finding a previously unidentifiable quotation a whole year after the original enquiry was made; she was at home reading a Jane Duran book when she was struck by a line which she remembered from the year before, and so was able to share the information with a very surprised and delighted Library user.

The Library keeps a running list of frequently asked for “lost” quotations that for some reason have come up time and time again. Two of our most commonly sought after poems are “Times Paces (Lines on a Clock in Chester Cathedral)” by Henry Twells, a poem which is actually fixed to the front of the clock-case in the north transept of Chester Cathedral, and “The life that I have is all that I have”, a short poem by Leo Marks which was one of many famous poems used to encrypt allied messages in the early years of the Second World War. Or, at least, they were, before it was realised that enemy cryptanalysts were able to locate the original poem and decode the messages themselves.

Back in the early days of the Library, the service was operated using two large “Lost Quotations” boards, but have now been replaced with an online service which can reach many more people in a much shorter time and which allows people to add their own suggestions and comments under the poem extracts. The most commented-on poem drew a whopping 145 comments suggesting its origin!

The original lost quotes board at the Poetry Library.

The original lost quotes board at the Poetry Library.

At the moment we’re trying to find out the author of the poem Old Men - any thoughts? Leave a comment on the Poetry Library website.

Chrissy Williams – Poetry Library Digital Coordinator

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